Yukon River Quest marks 20 years of exhaustion, athletic feats and oddities

The Yukon River Quest participants put down their paddles to celebrate the oddities, exhaustion and athleticism at the end of a grueling 715 kilometres. They were joined by Quest volunteers at a banquet Saturday night in Dawson City.

Paddlers, volunteers celebrate and share stories at Dawson City banquet

The fastest overall team, Yukon Wide Adventures, travelled in a six-person voyageur canoe. Team captain Thomas de Jager holds the trophy. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Yukon River Quest participants put down their paddles to celebrate the oddities, exhaustion and athleticism at the end of a grueling 715 kilometres.

They were joined by Quest volunteers at a banquet Saturday night in Dawson City.

I was just helping.- Thomas Thole

One special award was given to Tony Thole, from St. Cloud, Minn., which organizers called the "Indiana Jones Award."

Thole managed to catch a boat which went adrift in Carmacks. The boat was holding some high-end video camera equipment when it broke loose from the Coal Mine Campground.

Seeing the boat starting to drift, Thole leapt into a canoe. He paddled it backwards with one-half of a kayak paddle.

Once he reached the boat, Thole jumped aboard to navigate it to a sandbar before it either crashed against the supports of a bridge in Carmacks, or drifted further away down the river.

"I was just helping," said Thole with a laugh after accepting his plaque.

Competitor Sebastien Le Meaux (second from left) is vision impaired, but won second place with the help of a guide. First-place paddle-board winner was returning champion Bart de Zwart from Hawaii, on the right. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Stories of exhaustion

One notable competitor this year was Sebastien Le Meaux of France.

He came in second in the stand-up paddle category despite having what he describes as "1/20" vision. Le Meaux used a guide who described his surroundings and told him which direction to paddle toward.

And at one point, Le Meaux fell into the water.

"It was after 25 hours standing up and paddling. I fell asleep and fell into the water," he said in French. "It was cold and it woke me up but I was so exhausted I had no idea where I was … We started again full-tilt in order to warm up."

Youngest canoeist

A special award was given to 15-year-old Liam Palmer from Alaska.

He is the youngest paddler this year. The age requirement to enter the race is 15 years old, and Palmer turned 15 the day the race started on June 27.

Liam Palmer, 15, received a special award for being the youngest participant. His 15th birthday was the day of the race’s beginning, meaning he barely met the age requirements to enter. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Winning team from Yukon

The fastest team was again, Yukon Wide Adventures, a team of six men in a voyageur canoe.

Captain Thomas de Jager says three of the six are returning champions from last year. He shared a few secrets to his team's success.

"The biggest thing — you need to be able to suffer," said de Jager.

"You get blisters, you get problems with your stomach, you get sleep issues, and you share that with your teammates."

The Yukon Wide Adventures team also uses a unique canoe which is very narrow, almost resembling a kayak. This provides ease when cutting through water but poses a real risk of tipping.

This especially caused problems on Lake Laberge, said de Jager, as the team paddled into a headwind.

Competitive secrets

Teams in the Yukon River Quest have different strategies for saving time, especially when nature calls.

They must stop twice for a combined 10 hours of rest but apart from this, most teams stay on board the entire race, many times foregoing washroom breaks.

A few paddlers reported taking anti-diarrhea medicine and some even wore external catheters in order to save time.

Mayor of Dawson welcomes paddlers

Mayor of Dawson City Wayne Potoroka said by paddling the river, the Yukon River Quest participants are part of a tradition that goes back far longer than the race's 20 years.

"The importance of the Yukon River stretches back to a time before the written word," he said. "It's been travelled by First Nations people for more than a millennia," he said.

"For Dawsonites and people living up and down the river, the Yukon is the binding thread that binds us together."